Monday, July 15, 2024

A chance encounter (740 words)

I turned off the TV and looked out of the window. The city beckoned with its crowded streets, speeding cars, and neon-lit buildings. The marquee on the front of the bar and restaurant glittered in changing colours. I saw smartly dressed couples entering the restaurant, chilling out, shaking their legs, and enjoying a sumptuous dinner.

It was cold outside, so I changed into a jacket, dabbed some perfume, took my small computer bag, and stepped out toward the garage. It was an exhilarating feeling to be in the bustling street lined with tall buildings and electronic billboards.

After parking the car, I entered the restaurant and ordered a drink. The place was almost full except for my table. As I sipped the drink slowly, my eyes half-closed, I heard a rustle around me and smelled a gentle fragrance. She was a beauty, tall and lissome, with her long hair falling insouciantly on her beautiful face. A strand of oyster pearls stood out prominently on her long neck.

She seemed hesitant initially, but when I smiled and drew a chair for her, she sat down with a happy smile. When I ordered her an extra drink, she did not protest.

“I am Vivek Sharma and I live in this city. Glad I could meet you. Care to join me for dinner?” I asked.

“I am Subhasree, I was looking for an empty table. Thank you for sharing the table. I am also happy to meet you. I live in the suburbs but work here and frequent this restaurant on weekends.”

We exchanged pleasantries and drank leisurely, watching young couples dance on the floor to the brisk music. When I looked at her meaningfully, she nodded in agreement. I took out my bulging wallet from the back of my pants and put it in the bag before taking her hand to dance. The proximity of the charming lady gave me a strange feeling. We danced as if we had known each other for a long time.

“It is nice dancing with you,” she whispered in my ear, her hair brushing my nose and tickling it.

“Sure, it is. We should make it a habit every weekend. Lucky, I met you,” I said.

We returned to our table and had spring pasta with blistered cherry tomatoes. We rejoiced in our newfound friendship. I gave her my card. She promised to give me a ring when she was free.

"Can you wait for a couple of minutes? I'll drop you wherever you wish to go. Keep an eye on the bag. I'll be back in a jiffy," I said as I rushed to the restroom. There were many waiting ahead of me.

When I returned in a triumphant mood after a slight delay, I was shocked to find the table empty. The woman was nowhere to be seen. Maybe, I wondered, she had also gone to the restroom. How careless of her to leave behind my things. As I turned to check, I saw my jacket on the chair, but the computer bag was missing. I waited a few minutes before calling the waiter to learn she had left.

The bill had not been settled, and the jacket was stripped empty. It then struck me that she had not given her card or details of her whereabouts. The waiter returned to place the folding pad containing the bill.​What a sucker I was to trust an unknown woman and leave the bag with my wallet.

When the Restaurant Manager heard about my predicament corroborated by the waiter, he graciously agreed to my paying the amount the next day even when I offered to return with the money before the restaurant closed.

 I gave up hope of recovering my bag​ and as I ​lay brooding​ over my foolishness, my phone buzzed with an unknown number. Hesitant but curious, I answered.

“Hello?”

“Vivek, it's Subhasree. I’m sorry I had to​ ​​rush urgently ​​to the hospital to see my mother who had developed complications. I ​kept the bag with me to keep it safe​ and left the jacket behind for obvious reasons.  Can we meet at the restaurant at the same time over dinner tomorrow?"

Relief washed over me, as I ​​saw her waiting with the bag at the same table and hopes surging high in me of a romantic turn. Needless to say, the wallet was in the bag.

"Love and hope are twins"- Maria Gowen Brooks

 

Saturday, July 13, 2024

The last ride of the day (808 words)

Biren leaned against his yellow Ambassador cab at Howrah station, waiting for the last train from Delhi, which was running late. It was past 11 PM, and he hadn’t had a good day. Most rides were short and didn’t fetch him much. As a principle, he never overcharged, considering it a form of begging. Scrupulously honest, he never tampered with the meter. He had his rules: always take pregnant women, however short or long the distance, avoid drunk men and shady groups, and hope for a foreign tourist or a rich man, though the latter rarely needed a cab.

That morning, his wife Tara reminded him there was no stock of materials to cook, and the children would go hungry the next day without money to buy groceries. Their youngest daughter had fever for two days and needed a doctor. His elder son mentioned the school fee was overdue by ten days. The nights were chill these days and his mom’s request for a blanket remained unmet for a month. His immediate concern was, however, to earn enough to buy groceries.

He wiped his old car clean, lit a joss stick in front of Ma Kali’s picture on the dashboard, and said a quick prayer. He saw movement among other drivers as the train hooted. The prepaid taxi counter closed by 10 PM, and drivers scrambled for passengers. Biren stood apart, worried as the arriving passengers dwindled, and thoughts of his starving family came to mind.

Just then, an elderly gentleman looking tired with a bag on his shoulder and a suitcase approached. 

“Baba, let me take your box and bag. I will take you wherever you want to go. Please, come with me and get into the car,” requested Biren

As he started the car, he asked, “Where to?”

“Lake Market. Once you reach there, I’ll direct you. I’ve never seen anyone take a passenger without asking first for the destination. You seem like a good person.”

“Thanks, Baba. I don’t usually ask. Today, wherever you wished to go, I would have taken you.”

“What’s special today?”

“Since morning, I’ve had only a few rides, mostly minimum fare. My wife asked me not to come home without enough money for groceries.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you two hundred rupees more than the fare. Tomorrow is a festive day, and I have no family or children. Are you in the Lake Market area?”

“No, Baba. Pay me the due fare. I don’t wish to take more.”

“You seem a strange but good type. I’m not feeling well. Let me rest for a while.” He dropped a five hundred rupee note on the front seat telling Biren, “Keep this with you. Return the balance after taking the extra two hundred rupees,” and reclined in the back seat.

“Why now? What’s the hurry?” Biren protested mildly, but the man rested with closed eyes. He seemed asleep as they passed Victoria Memorial. Nearing Kalighat and Lake Market, Biren called, “Baba, we’re almost there. Wake up for directions.”

There was no reply. Worried, he asked again in vain and stopped the vehicle near the tram depot and nudged him. The man fell to his side to his shock. Biren quickly turned the car towards the adjacent Ramakrishna Mission Hospital. The doctors found him in highly critical condition and decided to rush him to ICU.

As the ward boys started pushing the stretcher to the ICU, Biren inserted Rs.150 in the passenger’s pocket instead of Rs.140 which was due to him. He explained to the staff the happenings and left the man’s belongings with the hospital and gave his contact details.

After a week, Biren got a surprise call from the hospital informing him that the patient had recovered thanks to the treatment at the nick of time and that the patient desired to meet him.

Later that day, when Biren met the patient, he introduced himself as Mr. Rao, and said with tears,” I learned from the attending doctors that you have literally saved me from the jaws of death by bringing me to a hospital without the slightest delay. I am under immense debt of gratitude to you. I got my box and belongings including the balance fare of Rs,150 meticulously inserted in my pocket. Frankly, I have never come across such a kind and honest person in my life.”

For the curious readers who may like to know how Mr. Rao repaid his debt, I can confide, on conditions of anonymity, that Biren got a brand-new vehicle of the latest model for a taxi, an undisclosed tidy sum for improving his living conditions and an assurance of full assistance till graduation for his two children.

 “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not”-Oprah Winfrey

 

 

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Haunted Milk Booth (1090 words)



Please note this story is not for fickle hearts😆

Inspector Palani stood to attention. "What is the matter, Palani?" asked the Superintendent of Police.

"A strange thing, Sir. People and even vehicles have avoided using the main road beyond the district hospital after dusk since a month or two.. They use instead the narrow road in the residential area that runs parallel to it. There is often a bottleneck as two cars cannot travel on that narrow road side by side. There is no platform for pedestrians either. It is a mess, Sir."

"Why are they not using the main road? Make the narrow road one-way," said the Superintendent.

"It is haunted, Sir, near the Avin milk booth. It seems the ghost there is violent."

"What nonsense are you blabbering? Aren't you a man in uniform? Post two constables with patrol cars this evening on duty for the night. We can convince people tomorrow and tell them it is safe, and that policemen would be there daily at night."

"I did ask two constables. They refuse to go out of fear," said the inspector.

"What crap? Issue them written orders. I want them there tonight. Report to me tomorrow morning" roared the Superintendent.

The next morning, the Superintendent got a call at 7 am. "I am Palani here. An untoward thing has happened, Sir. Both the policemen were found dead near the Avin booth. There was a big crowd there. I had the two men checked by a local doctor. It seems they died of heart attacks."

"My God! Send them immediately to the hospital for postmortem. Inform the families. I will mention this to the Commissioner. Meanwhile, I will ask for two armed commandos to be put there tonight to unravel the mystery," ordered the Superintendent.

At 6 am the next day, the Superintendent got another call. "Palani again, Sir. Something strange and malevolent has occurred. Both commandos were found dead, shot at close range. Some people nearby heard gunshots and rushed there in a group. There were none seen in the vicinity. Even the cigarettes the commandos were smoking were still burning by the side of the chairs they were sitting on, Sir."

"What are you telling, man? This is unbelievable. People will laugh at us. Call the Homicide branch and ask them to have the place thoroughly examined. Have the place cordoned off. I will inform the Commissioner."

The evening newspapers screamed:

Ghost on rampage. 

Stunned two policemen to a heart attack. 

Last night two commandos were spurred presumably to shoot at each other.

 Police clueless.

In the evening, the Superintendent told Palani, "I could not talk to the Commissioner as he is out of station. I have decided to go myself and investigate. I do not wish to send others."

"Sir, can I go with a couple of policemen?" asked Palani.

"No, I do not want to risk sending or taking anyone without personally checking. Do not fear. I don't believe in ghosts and can unravel the mystery. I will have a CCTV camera fixed there tomorrow."

At 4 am the next morning, Palani’s mobile rang. It was the Superintendent’s wife. "Mr. Palani, my husband went out in the evening and is not answering my calls to his mobile after midnight. Can you please check immediately and tell me? I am very much worried."

Palani rushed to the spot. He found the road deserted. It was past 4:30 am. When he reached the Avin booth, he was shocked to see the Superintendent squatting on the ground in bare body, tearing his shirt, filling his cap with mud, and laughing hysterically like a madman.

"Sir, please get up. What are you doing? Why have you removed your shirt? Are you OK, Sir?" Palani said with concern and shock as he gently lifted him.

"He he he, I have arrested the ghost. The Commissioner will be happy," he said, looking in no particular direction even as he jumped up and down in frenzied laughter.

Palani looked nervously at the mental wreck before him. It dawned on him that the problem had assumed ominous proportions. Maybe, it falls in the domain of a tantric, he thought.

He realised he needed an ambulance or a vehicle with two men to move the Superintendent to a hospital. He turned and rushed to his motorbike. As he was about to start the bike, he heard a shuffling noise from behind the milk booth. Startled, he looked intently at the dark area, trembling in fear with his heart pounding feverishly and a cold tingle passing through his entire body. Lo! It seemed like a dark and strange figure ambling towards him in an unusual gait. It was still dark. He switched on the light of the bike to see that the figure had mysteriously vanished.

Gaining composure, Palani decided to arrange for an ambulance and a couple of policemen. As he drove, he saw after a mile an old man sitting outside his hut. Stopping the vehicle, Palani asked him, "How come you are sitting here fearlessly  when people say the area near Avin milk booth is haunted and the ghost is ferocious?"

"Yes, the ghost menace started after the light in the lamppost opposite the booth got fused. They have not changed the bulb and the ghost is running amuck, threatening people who pass through that patch when it is dark," said the old man.

"Is it only a recent problem after the fuse of the bulb?" asked Palani.

"Don’t you know ghosts avoid light and bright areas? Are you not aware the milk booth operates nowadays only during the daytime? You seem to be a policeman. Get the bulb replaced immediately and have some additional lamp posts in this short stretch. There would be no further problem," he answered.

"Surely, it will be done today itself. Thank you," replied Palani.

Wondering how such a simple solution from the illiterate man evaded the police, he proceeded to get the Superintendent removed to a hospital after informing his wife. He instructed the electricity authorities to do the needful the same day without fail.

Palani's wife, who was pacing in the hall at her home from early morning, heaved a sigh of relief when she heard the motorbike stop outside her house.

A couple of days later, there was a short report in the newspapers,

The menace of ghosts has been busted successfully!

Thanks to the adroitness of Inspector Palani

As a titbit, readers would be happy to know that the old man at the hut received from an unknown source an undisclosed sum as a token of appreciation for the help in the resolution of the problem.

 

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The Hidden Sacrifice (505 words)


“Usha, can you drop by today? It’s urgent,” said Divya’s mom.

“Sure, Aunty. Is something wrong? I haven’t spoken to Divya in days,” I replied.

“It’s about Divya. She’s not herself. She barely eats, isolates herself in her room, and hasn’t gone to work for three days. We’re worried. Can you visit around lunchtime, casually?” Aunty pleaded.

Divya and I had been close friends since school. Our paths diverged—me becoming a doctor, and she a management graduate—but we stayed in touch. I work with my husband at a military hospital. Divya had been in love with Vikas, an army officer, for over three years, and they planned to marry. He was transferred north about a year ago.

When I reached Divya’s place, her mom whispered that she was in her room upstairs and asked me to find out what was wrong discreetly. “Don’t worry, Aunty. I’ll find out.”

I knocked on Divya’s door gently. No response. Louder. Still nothing. “Usha here. Open up,” I shouted through the keyhole.

The door creaked open, revealing Divya’s swollen, red eyes. “Usha? What are you doing here? Did mom call you?”

“I called your office yesterday. They said you were on leave. I was passing by and thought I’d check on you,” I replied.

“Come in. Let me wash my face,” she said, disappearing into the bathroom.

When she returned, I asked, “Why were you crying? I heard you haven’t been to work for days and you’ve been isolating yourself. Are you in touch with Vikas? Don’t hide anything.”

She handed me a letter from Vikas, dated two weeks ago.

Dear Divya,

Brace yourself. I narrowly escaped death at the border. My friend Pandey saved me, sacrificing his life. His last wish was for me to care for his sister, who is now alone. She has no parents, no skills, and is dependent on him. Over the month I spent comforting her, she grew attached to me. Torn between you and her, I decided to honour my debt to Pandey by marrying her. I am sure, with your qualifications and charm, you’ll find someone else. Please forgive me.

Vikas

I hugged Divya. “I understand your pain. It’s a betrayal, no matter his reasons. You need to move on. Go back to work, visit me, meet new people, and have some fun.”

Two months later, I was temporarily posted at Chandigarh Military Hospital. On my second day, I recognized a name on a patient file: Vikas Kumar. The chief nurse told me he was an army officer severely injured, losing both legs and with one arm badly hurt.

I went to his bed; he was sleeping. “How long has he been here?” I asked.

“Six months,” the nurse replied.

“Any visitors?”

“None. He dictated a letter a couple of months ago to a woman once, which I typed.”

Tears rose as I realised Vikas’s true love and sacrifice for Divya. His letter was merely a ploy to divert her mind away from him, handicapped as he was now.

(Readers who post their comments anonymously may please leave their names under the comment)

 

Saturday, July 6, 2024

A broken pane and the unspoken bond (972 words)

 


As a young boy, I played cricket in our colony several decades back. There was not much vacant space except a patch in the middle of the colony. Three sticks of different heights served as stumps, with a brick at the other end as the fourth stump. Half a dozen boys of varying ages formed our team. Discarded tennis balls were donated by the dad of one of the boys. Two hours in the evenings, until the shadows lengthened, were sheer thrill and joy for us.

While the inevitable noise and shouting during the play, were not objected to by the elders,  one old gentleman, Bhaskar Rao, living adjacent to the playing area, did not relish the game being played there. He often came out and remonstrated with us, saying, “You are all shouting too much and are a daily nuisance. This is not a playground. Why don’t you go play in the corporation ground in the adjacent street?”

We would plead with him, “Uncle, we will not shout or make noise. Please allow us to play here as older boys are playing in the corporation ground and do not allow us to enter there.”

“I don’t wish to hear all your excuses. I am not going to allow you fellows to play here. I will tell the Secretary of the Association in writing, though I know his son Mukesh is also one of your gang,” he said. Nevertheless, he never wrote or spoke to the secretary, and we continued playing merrily.

One day, Mukesh had brought his cousin, an older boy. A tall and strong fellow, he hit a ball into the window of Bhaskar Rao’s flat. Luckily, the ball hit the wooden frame, and the glass was not broken. The old man rushed out of the flat to survey whether any damage had been done to the window.

I said, “Uncle, nothing has happened. It just hit the frame. We will be careful.”

Without uttering a word, he took the ball that was lying near him and went inside. All our pleas for the ball fell on deaf ears. When he did not open the door, I remember pressing the bell at regular intervals, sometimes nonstop for a long duration. He came out seething in anger and exploded, “You rascal, how dare you press the bell like this continuously. I will complain to your father in the evening. I have no intention of returning the ball.” He slammed the door and never opened it despite our shouting.

The day’s play had to stop as there was no spare ball. As we dispersed, I took a small stone and hit the window pane directly, breaking the glass. I ran away before he came out.

I was scared that the old man would catch me the next day. But surprisingly, we found the ball lying on the ground, and he never came out to make noise about the windowpane. It pricked my heart with guilt when he remained silent about the broken glass whenever I crossed him in the colony. I could not return his smile and instead hung my head in shame. His stony silence about the incident made me all the more uncomfortable.

When I told my mom about his stopping the play one day and how I broke the glass in anger, she said that Rao had lost his only son of my age some years ago while playing cricket. When he was fielding at close quarters, it appeared the ball hit him on his head near the brow, and the poor boy died the same night.

My mom felt that he was so paranoid about youngsters playing cricket  and it stemmed basically from the fear of likely injury I could not sleep that night. I had saved about two hundred rupees from the gifts for my birthday.

The first thing in the morning I did was to go to his house and fall at his feet with profuse apologies. He lifted me and said with a smile, “Raju, why are you prostrating? Any examination today or birthday for you?” He saw me crying and asked, hugging me, “What happened? Why are you crying?”

In sobbing tone, I remember saying, “Uncle, you must pardon me. I was the wretch who broke the window that day in anger when you did not return the ball. Here is two hundred rupees that I had saved that would cover the cost of putting a new glass. Please accept it. I never knew then why you did not like us playing cricket till Mom told me last evening. Until you forgive me, I cannot look straight into your eyes.”

“Wait a minute,” he said, and came back with a new cricket bat. “This was bought by my son a week before he had the tragic accident. I am not against cricket when played with protective gears. Take this bat; I gift it to you as it can be put to better use than being an article of memory. Here is the money you gave me. I knew you had broken it. But I have left the door deliberately unrepaired as it would make you all play carefully. You can use the money to buy some protective gears like a helmet, pads, gloves, and abdomen guards. If you need some more money, I am ready to pay.”

Even after several decades, I fondly remember his kindly face that taught me a lesson on concern for others and forgiveness. As I look back now, I realize that his silent pain, hidden behind his stern exterior, was a testament to his love for his lost son. As he embraced me that morning with forgiveness and love, he mended not only a broken window but also healed a part of his heart. 

 


Thursday, July 4, 2024

The spooky story (667 words)

"Tharpa, I’ve been putting off telling you this, but the weekly isn’t doing well. With the advent of the internet, our circulation has plummeted,” the editor of 'Your Weekly' paused. I stayed quiet, worried about where this was going.

“If the circulation doesn’t pick up, we might have to shut down. Nothing is happening in this town, and readers are bored. We need to shake things up. I’m adding a spooky section. Find real, terrifying stories. Your first one is due in three days for the Sunday edition. If we don’t do something dramatic, we’ll all be looking for new jobs,” he concluded, returning to his manuscript. I wasn’t overly worried—young and single as I was—but I wanted to rise to the occasion.

I drove to a nearly abandoned village, recalling an old, dilapidated mansion on its outskirts. It seemed perfect for a spine-chilling story. As I got out of the car, an old farmer passing by said, “Why are you going there? It’s haunted. Stay away if you know what’s good for you.”

“Thanks, but I’m just taking some pictures for my magazine,” I replied, walking through the broken gate. The pathway was littered with dry leaves and broken twigs. Some windows hung loosely from their frames. I knocked on the door, half-expecting no response. To my surprise, it opened, revealing a small man with deep, sunken eyes.

“Is the master here?” I asked.

“Sure. Come in and be seated. Does he know you?” he asked in a squeaky voice.

“I doubt it. Just tell him Tharpa from Your Weekly for an interview,” I replied as he led me into a large, musty hall filled with cobwebs and scattered leaves. “We have no servants, and times are hard,” he said. “Please wait. He’ll be down soon.”

I noticed a huge portrait of a man with a sword and spear, his gaze seemingly fixed on me. Suddenly, the portrait’s lips parted, and its mouth opened. Fear gripped me, and I called out, “Hey, I can’t wait any longer. Let me out!”

The figure in the portrait descended, blocking the exit, looking menacing with one hand on his sword. Sweat drenched my clothes as I shouted, “Hey, come quick!” My voice barely worked. The servant’s voice echoed, saying the master had already come to meet me.

Desperate, I looked for an escape. The figure advanced, and I heard a squeaky crackle. Turning, I saw the servant as a skeleton, arms dangling and laughing loudly. The figure closed in, and I fainted.

The Sunday edition of 'Your Weekly' carried the headline and detailed report:

"Reporter Found Dead in Mysterious Circumstances"

We regret to announce the unexpected death of our reporter Tharpa in a supposedly haunted mansion. He went there to gather material for our new spooky stories' column. A villager, who saw him enter, waited for him to come out. When he didn’t, he gathered others and found Tharpa lying on the floor of the hall. No other person was present. The local doctor declared it a cardiac arrest, though villagers blame ghosts.

Tharpa was one of our best and fearless…


On Monday morning, the editor prepared to visit the coroner's office for the inquest. A gentle knock preceded Tharpa’s entry. A chill ran down the editor's spine, and he nearly fainted.

The figure spoke in a squeaky voice, "Do not be scared. I am not your reporter but the servant of the Master of the mansion in the reporter's frame. When the reporter passed away, I couldn’t resist entering his lifeless body from my skeleton after everyone left the mansion. I don’t know where to go or what to do."

Summoning courage, the editor asked, "What proof do you have that you’re not Tharpa but a ghost masquerading as him?"

"None, except his phone with the pictures he was taking. You can see my skeleton there," said the squeaky voice.

When the editor clicked open the phone, he fainted, leaving the figure in Tharpa's frame bewildered.

 

Monday, July 1, 2024

Behind the facade of ugliness (395 words)

I was in the supermarket with my seven-year-old daughter, having just bought groceries and treats from the bakery. The evening breeze was gentle, and my daughter wished to sit by the fountain outside the store and watch the falling water. I moved towards a bench where a young boy was already sitting. As we got closer, I noticed his dirty, torn knickers and oversized T-shirt. His unkempt hair looked like it hadn’t been washed for days, and his bare legs were covered in grime.

As my daughter rushed to the bench, I called her back. “Let’s sit on the other bench,” I said.

“Why, Mom? I like this one. There’s a boy there,” she asked innocently.

“It’s not clean here. Let’s go to the other bench,” I replied, avoiding a detailed explanation.

She followed reluctantly, frequently glancing back at the boy. He smiled at her, his eyes sparkling with joy.

“What’s wrong with sitting next to him? Is it because he’s poor?” she asked, her tone tinged with sadness and anger.

“He’s dirty. I don’t want you near him,” I said.

She sat grumpily beside me; her eyes still drawn to the boy. Suddenly, he stood up and pulled out a friendship band from his pocket, smiling invitingly. My daughter looked at me, eyes pleading.

It was then in a blinding flash of realization, I became aware of how peevish I had been failing to see the beauty in his spirit past that grubby outfit. I could no longer see the filth in his hair or dress. “Why not? Go to him and get the wristband,” I told my daughter.

She jumped in joy and ran to him. The boy tied the band carefully without touching her hand with both watching me. I called them both over and handed my daughter a packet of chocolates to share. I told my daughter, “Give him your hand for a warm shake and run around the fountain”.

As they ran with their hands held together, I could see the happiness writ large on their faces. The boy no longer seemed ugly and his smile looked angelic to me as his warmth and joy were evident.

Reflecting on my childhood, I realized how superficial my initial judgment had been. True beauty lies within and we must look deeper to find it. Life’s circumstances vary, but kindness and warmth transcend appearances.